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May 2004
Ivan the Shopping Mall Gorilla
By Julie Hughes


December 1996
December 1996

Of all the stories about human commodification and exploitation of animals, the shocking cruelty of trade in wild animals, and our collective failure to consider their interior lives and manifest needs for companionship and dignity, none perhaps is more moving than that of Ivan the gorilla.

Ivan, a magnificent silverback gorilla, spent 27 years imprisoned in a display window at a now defunct Tacoma, Washington discount shopping mall. Ivan was there to attract shoppers who would ogle him as they strolled by, spending a pleasant day shopping for additions to their wardrobe or kitchen counter. Ivan was not alone in the store: the owner, Earl Irwin, had a menagerie of exotic animals in his bizarre circus of commerce. Ten years ago, Ivan’s plight was made public in the newsletter of the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of animal issues. Thanks to PAWS’ efforts protesting, getting petitions signed, undertaking public education and, finally, through lawsuits, two years ago Ivan began a new life at Zoo Atlanta along with 17 other gorillas.

Up to the very end, however, the children of Earl Irwin made things difficult. They insisted on a clause in the contract which barred Zoo Atlanta from divulging anything about Ivan’s previous owners or his upbringing, and stipulating that the transfer must be referred to as a “gift” rather than a “rescue.” The Zoo reluctantly complied and Ivan was free, or as free as a captive animal can be, to socialize with others of his species after almost 30 years of solitary confinement.

At first, Ivan was wary of his new surroundings at the zoo. Having been subjected to a hard concrete cell for so long—the only semblance of nature a fake waterfall painted along the wall—Ivan was curious about almost everything; the feel of grass and rainwater amazed him. Throughout his time at the mall, Ivan had had no contact—visually or physically—with others of his species; he had been brought from Zaire with a female companion, Burma, who died shortly after arrival. Ivan, therefore, needed an extensive resocialization program and was introduced to his peers slowly. When he first arrived in Atlanta, Ivan spent three months in quarantine where he was checked for serious ailments and then moved into the Ford African Rain Forest exhibit.

When I called Zoo Atlanta last month, a spokesperson informed me that Ivan is doing quite well. He has learned how to behave like the proud silverback he is, by charging, vocalizing, and displaying. He also seems much more relaxed. In fact, he has just been introduced to an older female named Shamba, who, according to the Zoo, has been smitten with Ivan for over a year. The staff at Zoo Atlanta is hoping for possible offspring in the next few years.

Ivan’s story appears to have a happy ending but what becomes clear after a closer look is that this tragedy should never happened in the first place. From the time of Ivan’s birth, to his kidnapping, shipment to the U.S. and imprisonment, Ivan was a victim. He had no opportunity to roam free, mate, run or climb. Remarkably, although perhaps instructively, he now displays no unusually aggressive or disturbed behavior for someone who has been kept in miserable conditions for most of his life. Everyone connected to his rescue and release speaks of Ivan in the kindest and most respectful of terms.

Ivan’s story is also a lesson in the abuse of the private ownership of exotic and wild animals. Some individuals, well-meaning though they may be, feel they will be able to provide for an exotic animal: they “ape-proof” their house, buy the right food, and give up a great deal of their life to devote to this animal, much like one would do for a child. Other owners have monetary reward in mind. They purchase these animals, not as oversized “pets,” but as commodities. Both categories of exotic animal owner continue an injustice.

How many more Ivans are out there? When I spoke to Dan Wharton, Director of the Central Park Wildlife Center, he informed me that there are presently only two gorillas privately owned in the country and that situations such as Ivan’s are thankfully rare. These two privately owned gorillas are held captive in a small Florida zoo; however, PAWS is working to change their status in much the same manner as Ivan’s. There are a greater number of chimpanzees held captive in the U.S. than gorillas, although no precise numbers exist.

We can all make a difference. Never buy a fad pet—nowadays it’s a hedgehog, a few years ago it was the pot-bellied pig. Never visit a “roadside zoo,” (or any similar institution which has not been accredited by the American Zoological Association) unless it is to find possible violations! The longer people continue to pay admission fees, the longer these establishments will stay in business. And for the more vocal of you out there, yell, scream, write letters and protest. After all, it worked for Ivan.

Editor’s Note: Satya called Zoo Atlanta in May 2004, and Ivan is still alive and well.

Julie Hughes
is a former Satya Editorial Assistant. For information on the Progressive Animal Welfare Society, visit or call (425) 787-2500.



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